How direct action shut down the WTO and freed our minds
In the city center of one of the nation\’s most prominent metropoli and the Northwest hub of free trade, an assortment of opposition forces to the World Trade Organization brought the system to its knees.
It was not a violent protest. In fact, the core of what shut down the conference, and brought to the Seattle Police Department a tactical defeat. Was the highly organized non-violent direct action strategy of the Direct Action Network. There were other factors to be sure. One was the participation of labor. Another was the broad display of mainstream and liberal organizations who came to town, swelling the size of the demonstrations, and providing a sense of safety to the more radical participants whose focus lay in the streets.
We were not passive. We locked down, we blockaded, we were mobile, and some of us damaged property. But most of all we were organized and we believed in physically challenging the powers that be, powers that included not just the WTO, but the whole system of global capitalism which it has come to represent.
There were a lot of us. We blended easily with the local population of youth and other people who were happy to join us at the barricades. And we weren\’t going to give up no matter how much tear gas was fired at us. We were determined.
The day\’s events started early, with at least two marches beginning that morning. The gathering point for the Direct Action Network (DAN) contingent was at 7 a.m., just up the hill from downtown in the hip, alternative-type neighborhood of Capitol Hill. It was still dark and there was a steady drizzle at the time the march took off.
Of course this was not the real beginning to the events that would later unfold. Hard working activists had come to Seattle early and had spent weeks and even months preparing for the big week, and in particular Tuesday, the big day. Tensions had been running high all week, people had hardly been sleeping, and by the time Tuesday morning rolled around many of the key organizers were, quite frankly, already fried. But it didn\’t matter now-the adrenaline had kicked in, filling the air with a curious, though anxious, elation.
As the march moved down the hill and towards the Convention Center, various clusters of protesters began to break off, making their way to different parts of the perimeter of the soon-to-be-besieged area. Organization for the day had been thorough, with the perimeter of the Convention Center divided up like a pie. Most groups or clusters of groups already knew which area they were going to and what they were going to do when they got there.
When the marchers arrived, various intersections and points of entry to the Convention Center had already been blocked by autonomous groups of non-violent protesters who employed any number of tactics to tie up space, snarl traffic, and seal off all points of entry for WTO delegates. Many delegates would spend the next few hours desperately trying to find a passage in. Demonstrators used lock-boxes, human chains, and sometimes chain link fencing borrowed from nearby construction sites to block their path and insure that the meeting would not go on as planned. It worked.
An elaborate and effective radio communication system between various clusters and locations proved invaluable for passing information between clusters and for deploying auxiliary groups of protesters to troubles pots as they arose. Radio communication became increasingly difficult throughout the day, however, as police-and possibly right wingers-began jamming the protester\’s frequencies.
Shut \’Em Down
Understaffed, inexperienced, and lacking political will from a city administration fearful of coming down too hard on protesters, the police were very ineffective. Having concentrated nearly all their forces on trying to defend the convention center and the WTO meeting inside, the surrounding streets, with few officers on hand, quickly became the domain of the protesters.
Around blockades and on surrounding blocks the number of demonstrators swelled as more and more people arrived. In addition to the area already closed by police, more streets were then shut down by protesters who erected impromptu blockades using relocated dumpsters, trashcans, and newspapers boxes. Traffic was gridlocked. Masked-up bands of roving anarchists were able to break many corporate and bank windows at this point, and quite a bit of political graffiti began to appear.
A de facto street party formed in the downtown shopping core bordering the convention center, and people more or less did what they wanted. The streets were ours. A sound system appeared in one intersection and people began dancing. Locals, especially youth, immediately joined the revelry and before long you got the impression that there was little to distinguish \’the people\’ from \’the protesters\’. Lines became blurred.
Lines were not blurred, however, at the blockades, where protesters faced off with police who started beefing up and militarizing their lines. They would periodically make incursions into an occupied intersection to allow delegates in, to break up a blockade, or to push back groups of protesters. Frustrated by the effectiveness of the blockades and not knowing how to deal with the growing numbers of people on the outside of their lines, the police early on resorted to tear gas and \”crowd-control\” munitions. From there, things escalated quickly.
By afternoon, terse standoffs were entrenched at numerous intersections and the focus of the day shifted from blockades of the WTO meeting to confrontations with the police. The police, now with full body riot gear and ominous black armored personnel carriers, by mid-day began to penetrate a wedge into the several block area of the perimeter which contained the largest mass of demonstrators numbering by this time in the thousands.
This incursion was a block by block push down Union St., one of the prominent streets of the downtown shopping district, now held by protesters. By exploding concussion grenades designed to scare people, then shooting tear gas canisters and sometimes rubber or wooden bullets, they moved slowly down the street, driving people off of one block, then holding the line. But this strategy proved too little too late, and by nightfall the authorities were forced to declare a state of emergency. They proceeded to gas the entire downtown area, sending thousands of people running in all directions to escape the tear gas. Martial law was declared, and that evening Big Bill Clinton rolled into town.
But the people would not back down. Despite the gassings and rubber bullets, crowds would continue to gather and regather in order to continue protesting. This went o into the night, with the police eventually pushing the demonstration up the hill into the Capitol Hill area, prompting young area residents to come out of their houses in support of the protests. The focus shifted again later that evening to angry residents demanding that the heavy-handed police leave their neighborhood.
Ultimately, the gassing strategy failed for the police. While it did succeed in clearing the streets, residents, shoppers, and workers got gassed right along with the protesters, making the disturbances bigger than they had initially been and setting a good number of Seattle locals against the police. The biggest costs to the city, it turns out, were not as a result of the much media-hyped vandalism to downtown storefronts, nor even the police overtime. The biggest costs by far were the lost revenue to downtown businesses caused by the absence of shoppers on the street during one of the busiest shopping weeks of the year, a situation brought on primarily by the police\’s overreaction.
By day two the city had called a state of emergency under pressure from federal authorities, and the greater downtown area-about one square mile-was declared a \”no protest zone.\” But by 7 a.m., hundreds of people had already entered the forbidden zone to protest. No sooner than they had arrived, they were descended upon by Seattle\’s finest, surrounded and arrested. Their crime: protesting while under martial law. Police targeted organizers and people with radio communications. From that point on, many of DAN\’s key players were in jail and the communications system was wiped out.
From the outskirts of the mass arrest site a larger crowd gathered. It and other groups formed sporadically throughout the day, including one that broke off from a steelworker\’s march, braving the foreboding streets of the no protest zone, often eliciting tear gas rounds from the occupation forces. But there was a defiant spirit in the streets amog the people as the sizable crowds demonstrated neither fear of the police, nor any inclanation of desire to see their right to protest stripped away.
On day two it seemed that nobody was in charge. The city could not control the demonstrations. The \”leadership\” of DAN, dominated by middle-class pacifists as it was, seemed increasingly cut off from the people in the streets. In fact, DAN\’s willingness to confront the WTO or police now seemed tempered by the previous day\’s \”violence.\” The people themselves, those who continued to go out of their homes and safe refuges, took the lead. They were now the forefront of the movement, and they were basically on their own.
After Tuesday, the leadership of DAN and the unions was unable or unwilling to lead the movement against the WTO. The demonstrations had been too hot and too effective and the bureaucrats and beneficiaries of groups across the board cowered in the face of further confrontation with power. With the exception of the dock worker\’s shutdown of the west coast ports on Tuesday, the other unions never actually led any direct action against the WTO in the first place, calling into question the basis of DAN\’s coalition with organized labor. DAN itself, after Tuesday, limited itself to only defensive actions, such as marching to the jail to demand the release of prisoners.
DAN and the unions did lead on subsequent days, but they led down a dead end, away from confrontation with the WTO, and to boring liberal rallies outside of the city center complete with reformist speakers and recuperationist politicians. They lead us back into the system. The more moderate groups who had come to Seattle such as the AFT-CIO and Global Exchange even went so far as to make amends and denounce the more militant actions of Fat Tuesday. Leaders of all stripes, left to right, were united by a desire to see things brought back under control.
A historical rupture took place in Seattle. A paradigm shifted and a level of consciousness was broken through that all the people who were there experienced.
The system was overwhelmed. A revolutionary situation emerged, meaning all the normal checks and balances of the system had failed momentarily. It broke down under the weight of a critical mass of opposition that crystallized and could not be contained through the proper channels. Normalcy disappeared, the social glue that holds society together had gone away, nothing was for sure and everything was possible.
The people took their power. A good number of the protesters hadn\’t come to Seattle to ask the WTO to change; they came to shut it down. The demonstrations changed the WTO, and the political landscape around it, by force. People took power from the bottom up and the authorities were powerless to do anything but hand it over. The spin doctors in the corporate media couldn\’t work fast enough to keep up with the shift in consciousness that the rift in society, however brief, allowed. The insight into the workings of the system, the exposure of the lies that are everyday reality, the struggle of righteous truth against condemnable tyranny proved impossible to ignore.
The real emergency wasn\’t the small amount of vandalism that occurred, and the violence was mostly administered by the police. The state of emergency that occurred was that people were taking power into their own hands. The emergency was a crisis of legitimacy for the authorities who accustomed to ordinarily being the ones in power in society and calling the shots, all of a sudden found themselves being stripped of that role of no free will of their own and in a manner over which they had no say. That was the state of emergency in Seattle. That\’s why it was brought under martial law.